August 31, 2017

Japan made in Hollywood

As I've noted previously, back in the day, Hollywood made (often very good) movies in and about Japan on a regular basis. The over-the-top camp of You Only Live Twice played well in Japan. Shogun showed up at the right time on American television, with the rights leads (Toshiro Mifune alongside Richard Chamberlain), and with sufficient verisimilitude.

More recently, The Last Samurai gave western audiences the same story from Dances with Wolves while Japanese audiences got an fantasy version of the Satsuma Rebellion. As with Rurouni Kenshin, fantasy versions of the Satsuma Rebellion abound in Japanese historical fiction (it's Japan's version of The Wild, Wild West).

The Last Samurai did reasonably well on both sides of the Pacific.

On the other hand, Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do anything that Japanese historical melodramas don't do on a weekly basis, and without any Japanese actresses in the leads. What was exotic to western audiences was ho hum in Japan.

Silence is an art house film that Martin Scorsese got to make because he's Martin Scorsese, so the box office is beside the point. But he filmed it in Taiwan for $46 million ("low budget" in Hollywood), did a good job recreating a recognizable Edo period Japan setting and finding good excuses for his Japanese actors to speak English.

Why 47 Ronin cost $175 million is beyond me. Its budget probably had a lot to do with the relative success of The Last Samurai. But at those nosebleed levels, it was never going to recoup its investment, Keanu Reeves notwithstanding.

It was too "Japanese" for western audiences, and audiences in Japan had no interest in a "Hollywood rendition of Chushingura bearing no resemblance to the historical epic." And barely any resemblance to Japan, period. Shooting anywhere but in Japan is fine until it it's obvious you're no longer in Japan.

The message wasn't going to resonate. It didn't resonate in 1941, when a version of Chushingura commissioned by the Japanese military and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi was also a commercial failure. It's been sourced for Japanese  television miniseries over twenty times, except it's Masterpiece Theatre material, not Marvel Comics.

Though 47 Ronin does prove that Ko Shibasaki, who has the lead in NHK's 2017 Taiga historical drama, can hold her own paired with a big Hollywood star. And with the right direction, Japanese actors can speak okay English. Although it (accidentally) also proves that speaking no Japanese doesn't guarantee anything either.

Mismatched cultural assumptions and a needlessly "adapted" adaptation sank 47 Ronin. Same for Ghost in the Shell. Paramount blamed social politics for the failure of the latter to rise to blockbuster status. I think it more accurate to say that these movies weren't nearly good enough to justify the amount of money spent on them.

At the end of the day, critics don't have much of a say in what audiences will like and pay money to see. And neither do the accountants.

The Marvel and DC universes are the current Comstock Lode of the entertainment business. Alas, the richest veins at the Comstock Lode played out in a decade or two. After that, it took more and more work to produce less and less, until the mines eventually closed.

Well, there's a whole lot of gold in them there manga and anime hills. All Hollywood has to do is figure out the mining technology that will refine that precious ore into movies that American audiences actually want to watch.

Related posts

Japan's Bond legacy
Dances with Samurai
Hollywood made in Japan

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
8/31/2017 6:58 PM   
Speaking of the 47 Ronin and comics, Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai did a fairly decent comic book adaption of the tale. Which apparently has not been collected in a single volume